People eat for reasons other than hunger. They eat when bored, to celebrate or to get through difficult times. But what no one talks about is how these habits develop in the first place. Do people engage in this behavior because food is plentiful or is it a learned behavior?
Parents have the power to help children from making food associations that cause them to over or under-eat. But like any dietary pattern, kids tend to follow their parents’ footsteps. So like most of the advice given on this blog, it applies to the whole family.
Here are 5 mistakes parents make when feeding their children – and how to fix them.
1. Eating to cure boredom: You don’t need me to tell you that kids get bored very easily. Sometimes parents offer food to distract their kids from boredom. Of course, doing this once in a while won’t hurt but getting into a regular habit of offering food to occupy time backfires. That’s because kids learn that eating is the solution to boredom. And food – when used to solve non-food problems – always makes matters worse.
Instead, stick to consistent meals and snack times for you and your children. When your kid gets bored let them feel bored. You can also suggest solutions that will help with boredom like completing chores, playing with a certain toy or working on a project. Or you can ask them what they think they should do. Soon they will learn the skills to combat boredom.
2. Rewarding behavior with comfort foods: There are many ways parents can use food to reward children – saying they can have cookies if they finish their dinner or clean their room. If they do well in school a parent might offer a child an enticing meal or favorite food. What’s the big deal? Studies show that making certain foods accessible only after completing a specific task, increases children’s preferences for that “reward” food.
Instead, provide your child (and yourself) with your favorite high-calorie, palatable foods 2-3 times a week as a regular part of meals and snacks. For example, cookies and milk as a snack on Monday, chips with lunch on Wednesday and fries over the weekend. This teaches kids how to eat the high-calorie foods as part of balanced diet – and makes comfort foods less of a focus.
3. Using food to distract from uncomfortable feelings: It’s understandable that parents want to ease their children’s bad feelings. Offering favorite foods to a child is tempting but it teaches them the wrong message – that food can cover up difficult feelings. Food only temporarily makes kids feel better and it adds a new problem of potentially being overweight.
Instead, let your child feel upset and encourage them to talk about what’s bothering them. If you find them seeking food on their own, talk to them about it. Teaching your child to accept difficult emotions as a regular part of life is an important lesson.
4. Providing snacks during TV time: Studies show that excessive TV viewing in children is associated with high weights and poor eating habits. According to a 2008 study in the International Journal of Obesity, for every additional hour kids watch TV they consume 106 extra calories. This causes children to eat out of habit, not hunger.
I’m not talking about having popcorn while watching a movie on Saturday night. But making the rule of no eating while watching TV – and making sure you the parent follow it too – is a smart move. Having a designated place for meals and snacks (like the kitchen table) will decrease the likelihood that your kids will associate eating with such a sedentary activity.
5. Eating in the car: One final food association that can cause over-indulgence is eating in the car. Once a child gets used to noshing while riding in the car they will expect food in the car and want it even when they aren’t hungry. Don’t get me wrong. There are times (more like emergencies!) that you’ll need to feed your child in the car – even to distract them. Like anything, make it occasional so a habit never develops.
Mealtime should be sacred, something to be enjoyed and savored. When we bring food and eating into other “non-food” areas we not only increase the likelihood of over-eating but we leave problems unsolved. Let your children keep their gift of eating when hungry and stopping when full. And then make them your role model.
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Fish JO, Birch LL. Restricting access to foods and children’s eating. Appetite. 1999;32, 405-419.
Jackson DM, Djafarian K, Steward J, Speakman JR. Increased television viewing is associated with elevated body fatness but not with lower total energy expenditure in children. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009; 89(4):1031-36.
Sonneville KR, Gortmaker SL. Total energy intake, adolescent discretionary behaviors and the energy gap. Int J Obes (Lond). 2008;Suppl 6:S19-27.